Investing in change and laying foundations for future
Blackpool Transport operate a network of high frequency buses and trams with 140 buses, 16 modern light-rail trams and a fleet of Heritage trams. In this article, Jane Cole, Managing Director of Blackpool Transport, provides details of the operator’s fleet regeneration programme plus improvements in other areas such as driver training, real-time information, ticketing and customer engagement.
I arrived as Managing Director at Blackpool Transport just over two years ago faced with a time expired fleet, high engineering costs and a lack of customer friendly information, yet you wouldn’t believe it if you were to look at where we are today.
Established over 125 years ago, Blackpool Transport carry over 17 million customers each year. It is done safely, quickly and efficiently by dedicated staff who care about the people that they serve. We are municipally-owned and we proudly serve the residents and visitors of Blackpool and the Fylde Coast with a high frequency network of buses, 16 FLEXITY trams and roughly 20 operational Heritage trams. This combination of transport services makes us a complex business that offers not only two modes of public transport but also a world-class visitor attraction. The tramway has been the number one attraction in Blackpool for three years on Trip Advisor.
We have undertaken a fleet regeneration programme never before seen in Blackpool with the aim that no vehicle in our fleet will be older than five years by 2020. We have forged a unique partnership with our sole bus manufacturer Alexander Dennis Limited (ADL) and in doing so we are able to commit to an extensive warranty and engineering agreement. Our team of engineers have visited ADL at their factory in order to gain the necessary training and understanding to carry out maintenance and repairs in-house, all whilst maintaining the vehicle warranty.
Rather than holding multiple variations of stock parts to cater for various vehicle types, our unique partnership has allowed us to dramatically reduce our stock hold, free-up important assets and reengineer our processes. How does this benefit the customer? Coupled with a striking livery and branding named ‘Palladium’, our fleet regeneration programme allows us to take a cost leadership approach by keeping internal costs to a minimum. Our customers can now enjoy free Wi-Fi, USB charging ports, e-leather seats, wood effect flooring and next stop audio/visual announcements as standard on these vehicles, all at no extra cost. Revenue is growing on these services at 2% higher than unbranded services and we are maintaining a policy of adding additional features with each batch of new buses.
With improvements in our engineering and product offering we quickly realised the need to improve the information offering to our customers, to break down barriers to using public transport and provide a transparent, modern service. Our recently introduced mobile app is allowing us to do just that. Packed with journey planning, real-time bus arrivals and m-Ticketing amongst other features, the app is revolutionising the way in which residents are able to access bus and tram information. Real-time information is derived from the vehicle itself, interpreted and displayed to the customer in a manner comparative to the rail industry. Data derived from the vehicle is also allowing us to assess driver’s driving styles and behaviour and will be reported through an app to a driver’s mobile phone. Long-term, this will allow us to improve not only our training offering to drivers but also improve the on-board experience for our customers.
Perhaps the largest benefit of our app is the ability to exploit intermodal transport between our bus and tram network. We’re all creatures of habit and all too often alternative and likely more efficient routes aren’t considered by our customers – through no fault of their own – and it is our duty to ensure they are presented with the most accurate information. By displaying travel options via both bus and tram the customer is able to make an informed decision around which route they would prefer to take and removes the need to study a timetable before planning a journey.
Timing couldn’t have been better with the introduction of our app as Blackpool will be served by high-speed rail links by 2019 and our tramway will be extended to run directly from Blackpool North train station. This will provide an integrated transport network to Blackpool’s +17 million annual visitors and a phenomenal opportunity for us to provide a truly intermodal public transport offering. To cater for the planned improvements to the tramway we are taking delivery of two new FLEXITY trams in 2017 which will allow us to increase capacity and look ahead to the future. The work carried out by our teams was recognised at the 2016 Global Light Rail Awards, as were Highly Commended in the Vision of the Year category.
Alongside our modern light-rail network of trams we have been able to preserve our Heritage Tram fleet which runs a tour-based operation alongside our timetabled service; the only tramway worldwide which does so. Impressively our entire Heritage operation is driven almost exclusively by volunteers, with only three salaried team members and 59 volunteer staff. It is the aim that by 2019 the Heritage team will operate independently and gain charitable status in order to secure vital funding for ongoing maintenance and improvement works to the Heritage fleet.
Advancements at Blackpool Transport are being supported and underpinned by our stakeholder engagement strategy. Our customers know what they want and it is our duty to engage with them to improve customer satisfaction. In order to do so we have completely remodelled our customer experience offering to embed ourselves within the local community. By forming alliances with local stakeholder groups of varying demographics, we have been able to implement informed decisions relating to our service offering which benefits those who need it most.
Perhaps some of the best work which we have been lucky enough to carry out has been in our ongoing training programmes to our staff. With the backing and involvement of local groups and communities our teams are experiencing first hand just how difficult it can be for some customers to travel by public transport. We recently scooped the Collaboration Award at the Guide Dogs UK annual awards ceremony for the work we carried out since early-2016 to engage and educate our staff about the difficulties faced by both guide dogs and their owners when travelling on public transport. This partnership started when guide dog Tim injured his nose on a local bus. We took it upon ourselves not only to make sure it would never happen again, but also to improve sight loss awareness on transport all around Blackpool.
Every member of staff has also received bespoke disability training to better cater for our customers. Our staff are all ‘Dementia Friends’, ensuring they are empowered with the ability to confidently cater for those with not only visible, but also hidden disabilities such as dementia and many others. It is work such as this which yields the greatest results in my experience. Alongside staff training, we also offer a Safer Journey Card which allows customers to provide details of their disability discretely to our front-line staff and allow them to take a more understanding approach to their needs.
People of Blackpool now have confidence and trust that we will listen and provide the best possible service, as demonstrated by our increasing passenger numbers despite the national trend of declining bus users. Looking ahead to 2017 and beyond I can only express my excitement and dedication to driving this business forward and ensuring a profitable, safe and secure future for this business.
Jane Cole is the Managing Director of Blackpool Transport, a bus and tram operator in one of the UK’s busiest seaside resorts. An inspirational and collaborative leader, Jane is someone who is good at making things happen. Since coming in to the post in November 2014 she has delivered the organisation’s key modernisation and improvement projects, such as the introduction of the luxurious Palladium buses to key routes across the town.